Why I Write About Animals, or, My Body Is the Animal I Write About
When I was 8 years old I took a shit on my carpeted bedroom floor because my younger brother made me angry. I did this while glaring at him, just so he would be sure I was doing it on purpose. 30 year old me regards this incident like "How could 8 year old me not know that you shouldn't do things like that?" but then 30 year old me has to remember that, at 8, I might as well have been an animal.
Since my late teens I've worked with kids, ages 7 to 18, most recently while working for Writers in the Schools in Houston. Especially at the summer writing camps mostly affordable to Houston's wealthier families I met some pretty sophisticated 8 year olds, but that certainly wasn't me. I was under-socialized, kept mostly at home where my mother was my and my siblings' primary educator until high school. I would leave the house to go to church and sometimes a Girl Scout meeting, but one of my mother's main concerns was living in the world while not being of the world, so she didn't regard frequent time with friends or other adult influences as particularly important. (No one wants to socialize their kid if she regards her society as being sick.)
In his essay "Some Notes on the Gazer Within," Larry Levis says that poets often write about animals not because they are interested in how animals can (either in their own right or through the craft of the poet) resemble humans but rather because they (the poets) “thirst after what is pure and other and inhuman in the animals."
That's why I like writing about my body; I don't write about it, for instance, as a sexy thing-- I write about it as an honest thing that does what perhaps, according to the laws of refinement, it shouldn't do. What separates humans from animals? It's our brains that have come up with language which is tied up in other complicated experiences like lying, guilt, rationalization, and apologies, all of which are tied to the exclusively human phenomenon of morality. In the animal world, on the other hand, the actions that lead to survival are "right" and the actions that lead to early death are "wrong"—very practical. But human morality is based on ideals--in other words, something less immediate and ultimately more imaginary than survival (How should we live? Our bodies want us to fuck and fight and kill forever, but is there a better way to be?).
My friend Eric Ekstrand (who got his MFA at the University of Houston and now teaches literature and creative writing at Wake Forest University) had a good insight about helping beginning writers to write better poetry; he said that one pitfall often succumbed to by young writers is the tendency to moralize in their poems, so that the poem comes across less like an engaging experience for the reader and more like a lecture from the writer. To help his students avoid this, he has them write about animals. Very few people would be inclined, for example, to write a poem wherein they exercise judgment upon the actions of a bird: "The bird stole something shiny/ from the women's open satchel./ He returned to his nest, a despicable, weakly constituted animal." If such a poem were written, it would be pretty clear that the bird was a stand-in for some despicable human; animals are just acting in accordance with their biologies. An animal's body tells it what to do, and if it is a healthy animal, (an animal equipped to survive long enough to make more animals that will also hopefully have bodies that tell them exactly how they should behave in order to stay alive long enough to make more animals) it will do things that, if done by humans would be rape, murder, infanticide, philandering, polygamy, cannibalism, and necrophilia.
I regard myself as thoroughly practical, and therefor fairly amoral. This does not mean that I behave badly. In addition to avoiding rape, murder, infanticide, philandering, polygamy, cannibalism, and necrophilia, I try very hard to avoid harming others in any way (even if the harm is just irritating someone who wants to sleep while I'm playing fairly ambient music with my friends in the next room), and I also try to help people avoid the harm that they might suffer at the hands of someone else. When I try to be a good thing in the lives of others it's not because of my allegiance to, for example, a particular religious text; my body is an animal that just wants to stay alive, and I know that being good to others will help them want to help me stay alive, by not killing me, by hugging me, by sharing their food with me, by letting me into their homes when it's snowing.
Let's get back to the idea of bodies as things that are irrational, amoral (not to be confused with immoral), improper, and inconvenient. Here are some facts about my body:
*It passes out and has seizures when I experience unexpected pain. My blood pressure drops drastically and I lose consciousness, dream dreams at an unbelievable speed, wake up freezing, hyperventilating, numb in my limbs, usually very emotional. It's incredibly undignified. Sometimes I have to be carried somewhere. Sometimes people have to briskly rub my arms and legs to restore circulation. Sometimes I'm wearing an oxygen mask. Usually everyone looks scared. Sometimes they praise me for being a strong and confident woman because they want me to stop crying.
*When I was young I blushed so easily and so severely that other kids would call their friends over to look at me.
*There are all kinds of foods I can't eat, and I always feel bad for anyone who wants to cook for me or take me out to dinner.
*Low blood sugar has made me snap at waiters/ waitresses and I have been very ashamed immediately following these moments.
While none of these bodily behaviors are necessarily desirable (and certainly not flattering), they are, I think Levis would agree, pure. They are honest, and just themselves. And when I am experiencing my body in any of the above ways I am also honest, and just myself.
One of the reasons I write is that I have often felt not at home in the world. I was raised thinking that I was at the head of all creation; I was a superior being because I could choose right actions over wrong actions. But, regarding myself as a superior being, I felt very separate from everything. Writing makes me feel part of everything again. I'm trying to catalog the everything—an action that indicates that I think the everything is worth something. My hope is that at some point the everything will see that I'm amenable to it, or, rather very much like it, and then will welcome me into it.
Hannah Gamble is the author of Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast (2012), selected by Bernadette Mayer for the 2011 National Poetry Series. She has received fellowships from InPrint Inc, The Edward F. Albee Foundation, and the University of Houston, where she served as an editor for Gulf Coast: A...